Data Privacy: Definition and Legislations

  • By Steven
  • Published: May 06, 2024
  • Last Updated: May 29, 2024


Data is among the most valuable information we have. It includes everything about us, our families, friends, and organizations; broadly, “data” encompasses all aspects of information; it can relate to public records, sensitive data, confidential, financial, medical, or any other aspect associated with an individual or company. Moreover, as more organizations move to online solutions and more individuals explore the Internet, data becomes a valuable commodity for organizations and malicious threat actors—that’s where data privacy becomes necessary.

This content presents the nuances of data privacy, its issues in online environments, the threats that hunt it, the legislatures that govern its protections, and the best tips for protecting yours.

Data Privacy

What is Data Privacy

Before the Internet, companies would utilize data privacy physically, collecting data about their consumers and storing that information in guarded file locations like offices and warehouses. However, society has come far from these beginnings. Data privacy refers to our right to control how, when, and why our information is collected, if it is stored and for how long, and if it is shared with others and to what extent.

For example, consider the data that is shared with dating website services. The platform would collect a person’s name, address, interests, dislikes, birthday, and other information critical to matching them with another person. If the service is subscription-based, they will obtain a user’s financial details by card payment or routing numbers. At the same time, other sites might request information about the user’s medical history, like their sexual orientation, past illnesses, or any diseases that may impact a potential match. Then, after sharing all this personal information, the website may be legally allowed to share the data with third parties, partners, affiliates, and law enforcement.

Data privacy allows us to limit the types of information we share with these groups and, subsequently, restrict the data those groups share with others without our express consent.

The Importance of Data Privacy 

Based on the section above, data privacy is essential—but why is data privacy important? Sure, it relates to everything about an individual, from their personally identifiable information (PII) to their personal health information (PHI) and all sensitive data like financial accounts, but why does protecting such information matter?

The importance of data privacy cannot be overstated, as it dramatically impacts a person’s life in society. For the individual, data privacy protects personal autonomy, prevents identity theft, and maintains personal dignity. Simultaneously, organizations that house and maintain consumer information must also consider data privacy; its status affects customer trust and community reputation, and its implementation reflects their ethical and legal obligations to consumers.

Data Privacy Laws and GDPR 

Despite the apparent importance of data privacy, legislatures and compliance regulations lag behind exploitative technology and information collectors. Data privacy laws are becoming more prevalent worldwide, with some nations adopting industry and country-wide acts and regulations. Arguably, the most important of these adoptions comes from Europe: the General Data Protection Regulation.

The grand-daddy of data privacy, the GDPR is a flagship act that outlines the standards for consumer information collection and that individual’s rights regarding their data. The regulation informs companies in Europe of how to safely manage the data they collect while offering management rights to consumers (i.e., the right to delete, the right to opt-out, and the right to opt in, etc.).

The GDPR is also the standard by which other nations (and states here in the US) develop their own data privacy resolutions. These other regulations come in many forms, most echoing similar rights presented by the GDPR:

  • Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Utah, and Virginia all have resident-specific regulations, with the most widely encompassing act coming from California. California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA—and its umbrella, the California Privacy Rights Act or CPRA) is the US standard for individual rights and commercial ethical obligations. This act gives a person the “right to know” the information a company has on them and to opt out of the selling and sharing of their data to third parties.
  • In comparison, a consumer’s PHI (protected health information) is regulated (in the states) by HIPPA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It is a federal law regulating the data privacy of healthcare-based data, including information collected by employers, insurance providers, hospitals, and doctors. Under this act, individuals have a right to know about the data associated with them, but they do not necessarily have the right to remove it from the association.
  • Federal laws also support the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which impacts children under 13. In the US, children who fall under this regulation are protected from third-party data disclosure; moreover, organizations cannot collect the data of these minors without parental consent.

Common Data Privacy Challenges

Common Data Privacy Challenges

Online Tracking 

Our movements, behaviors, and choices online are constantly being watched; we are tracked by organizations looking to gain insight into consumer demographics, marketers looking for niche clientèle interests, and even threat actors—looking for ways into our networks and information to misuse for their benefit. Cookies, keystroke loggers, and click-initiation technologies track consumers’ online movement and interaction, sometimes without explicit consent.

Phishing Scams 

Another data privacy challenge is phishing. Named after open-water fishing, these scams entice unsuspecting consumers and employees into sharing information, compromising data privacy. A malicious character might send an individual a phishing text requesting details about their “compromised” account or a time-sensitive lottery reward. In contrast, scammers could send an employee a phishing email requesting account credentials or HR information. Either way, phishing attacks are a constant threat online, even when not directed at a specific target.

Lack of Control Over Third-Party Data Sharing 

Even with the highest possible levels of Internet security, a consumer’s information is not always protected. The companies we necessarily share data with sometimes have an unrestricted right to share (or sell) our data with third parties, regardless of the data owner’s consent. This practice establishes some organizations within their industry but also opens consumers to the nightmare consequences of data breaches, leaks, and online threats.

Data Privacy vs. Data Security 

Data security and privacy are similar and often conflated; however, each has different nuances. Data protection encompasses privacy and security and is essential for consumers and organizations to consider when browsing online and sharing information. Data privacy refers to the safe handling and maintenance of private data, while data security concerns protecting data from unauthorized access.

Data privacy examples include the ethical and responsible use of information:

  • Classification of data (for prioritization)
  • Data removal and erasure options
  • Data consent disclosures and policies

Data security examples include how those interests are enacted:

  • Encryption channels and network protections
  • Access control and role-based access options
  • Incident response and continuity policies

Data Breaches and Sensitive Data 

Data breaches are those incidents where an entity—authorized or not—discloses, accesses, views, or copies the information of others. In most cases, data breaches are elaborate plots crafted by cybercriminals looking for consumer and organizational information to misuse. However, some data breaches are also “accidental,” caused by employee malice, neglect, or naivety.

When a data breach happens, it impacts the breached organization by damaging its reputation and causing significant financial losses; however, a breach can also impact other organizations not directly related to the victimized systems. For example, consider the 20+ million record data breach suffered by 23 and Me; this event was a credential stuffing attack, where the threat actors used the usernames and passwords of other breaches to infiltrate 23 and Me’s user accounts.

Further, data breaches have lasting repercussions for consumers caught in the fray. If a threat actor obtains the correct information, they might suffer identity fraud, financial losses, extortion, etc. Generally, the more sensitive data exposed in a breach, the greater the consequences:

  • Personally identifiable information (PII) exposure can cause identity theft, fraud, threat monitoring, or impersonation.
  • Protected health information (PHI) exposure can cause physical danger to those involved, particularly when opposing health details are added to the victim’s health records.

Tips to Help Protect Your Personal Data 

Although organizations maintain our data, and there are limits to how we can request they manage it, individuals have significant roles in concealing their data. There are numerous easy ways to help prevent the exposure of personal data:

Be Careful When Sharing Information on Social Networks 

Avoid sharing your and your family’s data online, especially on social networks. If a post announcing when you’re going on vacation for the holidays invites burglars to the area, then posting about your favorite hangouts, where you work, and your mother’s maiden name invites threat actors in swarms. Limit the information you share online through public and private posts, and never confirm or deny questions about your data with strangers.

Regularly Update Privacy Settings 

Everyone’s done it—push off a device’s update until later; albeit annoying, these updates provide the newest patches and security installments for their servicing device. That means when we avoid updating our toys, we increase the chances of a malicious actor accessing and misusing the data stored inside. Frequent checks and subsequent adjustments to devices and the settings of digital platforms significantly increase the security and protection encompassing your data.

Use Strong, Unique Passwords

Strong  passwords are essential to basic cybersecurity and data privacy; without a strong password, any threat actor or malicious organization might access an account, threatening other users and entire industries. The best way to maintain and generate high-impact passwords is by using a password manager. These solutions maintain all your passwords in one location, reducing password fatigue and providing a fast and easy way to apply those passwords, reducing the risk of exposure by shoulder surfing and theft.

Be Aware of App Permissions

Another protection to consider is not allowing applications to share your information. As mentioned above, some organizations share and sell data with each other. When applications—like the ones on your phone and tablet—have these commerce obligations, it can be challenging to maintain privacy because the user doesn’t know where their data is going or how to conceal it. However, suppose users dig into the Terms and Conditions or Privacy Policy of the apps they’re interested in before installing the software. In that case, they could learn about the rights they are owed relative to that specific application.

What Technologies Are Most Important for Data Privacy

What Technologies Are Most Important for Data Privacy

Data Encryption 

Data encryption is one of the most vital tools organizations, and consumers can use to protect their data because it makes data unreadable to unauthorized users; this means that even if someone gains access to a private network, they wouldn’t necessarily obtain information from the access. Due to their protective data properties, end-to-end encryption channels are being implemented with increasing frequency.

Access Control 

Suppose a threat actor was able to access a network environment. Once inside, the malicious actor may have free reign, but if the network owner implements access controls, the system can restrict this freedom. Access controls and role-based permissions ensure that only authorized individuals can access specific data that entraps a threat actor, restricting their influence and mitigating consequential damages.

Two-Factor Authentication 

Imagine a cybercriminal exposing your data. If that data were the login credentials used for other accounts, nothing would stop a threat actor from accessing those other profiles. In situations like this, enabling two-factor authentication can be the difference between losing retirement funds and changing a password. Multi-factor authentication enhances data privacy by verifying the user’s identity before making any permanent changes, like transferring money, altering permissions, and showing sensitive profile information.

Privacy is crucial to individuals, societies, and economies worldwide. It entices organizations into capitalism while allowing individuals to obtain entitlements explicitly owed to them. Data privacy is an essential part of how our society functions, and unless individuals learn about how to protect themselves, they can become a threat actor’s victim.

Moreover, organizations are obligated to protect their consumers’ data, but this doesn’t stop them from sharing it with others or falling victim to single-point failures like data breaches. Consequently, the responsibility of data privacy is split between the data owner and the organizations that track their information—to have one without the other is to have neither

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